“I couldn’t do that,” he said. I smiled, but it hurt to feel judged by the same person who had given me a lovely haircut and an hour of fun conversation. His comment induced guilt for leaving my mom — my favorite person in the world — yet again.
I had just returned home from two years of living and working in Spain. I spent a month with her in Florida while interviewing for new job opportunities in Mexico. Once I landed a position, I booked a flight to Mexico City where I would spend (at least) two more years abroad. My “gap year adventure” in Spain had turned into my lifestyle.
Many times, I have questioned my decisions. I have worried that my choices hurt my family. I have a one-and-a-half-year-old nephew, whom I have only seen once, and another nephew, just a few months old, who I have yet to meet. Life has gone on everywhere while I’ve been country hopping. And now, the hairdresser I had just met was giving me an unpleasant look. “I couldn’t do that… Not to my mom. Leaving her alone in this country.” The wind blew my freshly cut layers as I left the salon with a knot of guilt in my stomach.
Before leaving Florida for Mexico, I met a good friend for lunch. “I am worried about you,” she said. She was not the only one, I am sure. She was voicing what others were thinking. She was worried about me as a woman, moving alone to Mexico City. She reminded me this is not a place known for its safety. Another knot tied around my already upset stomach.
I felt frustrated. I did not want people to worry about me. More importantly, I did not want to worry about me. I wanted others to feel excitement. And I wanted their reassurance to build confidence in my choice. I was taking a risk and I was following my heart. That’s what inspirational quotes tell you to do, but when put into practice, they tend to induce insecurity rather than courage. I needed a boost of confidence to feel excited about this lifestyle, and I needed clarity to deal with whatever challenges this big move would present.
I decided to change the conversation. I politely asked for a shift in word choice from the people I love, and they understood. I did not need them to tell me they were worried. I needed them to tell me, “I know you can do this. And if you need me, I am here for you.” When fears crept into my mind, I swapped my negative thoughts for out loud affirmations: “I can move to Mexico. I am capable of facing any challenge ahead. I will contribute positive things to this new country.”
As planned, my boyfriend joined me in Mexico City after a month. However, despite my awareness of his impending arrival, it did not make that first month alone any easier. Sure, Bradley would eventually meet up with me in this big city, but so much could happen in a month. The fact that I had managed to move to Spain on my own for two years did not make me feel any more self-assured that I could tackle this month in Mexico.
When I moved to Spain, there wasn’t a boyfriend in the equation to move with me. I managed to outdo my own empowering fantasy of a strong, single woman traveling Europe–just in time to fall in love. After such an experience, a month alone in Mexico should have felt manageable at least, but it didn’t. Fortunately, I survived, and I am currently in my seventh month living here. I am happy to report that though it was an emotionally trying start, I am beginning to thrive here.
Intentional or not, too often women are taught to be afraid and to be really careful. I grew up with a lot of fears in my head, mostly related to safety. When I read Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild, a new seed of bravery was planted in my mind. This quote from the book became my source of both female and expat empowerment:
“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.”
I have said it so many times, it has come true.
Being a woman, alone, in a foreign country, has pushed me to be assertive. I have learned to take firm steps, whether I know the way or get totally lost. I have braved the gruesome paper-work of visas and temporary residency cards. I have learned to discern when to be practical with my belongings (we can do just fine with less than half of what we have). I have also learned to be a resourceful problem-solver, and that staying calm and kind is half the battle. Because I have faced two international moves on my own, I am confident in my ability to take care of myself. I have realized that even when I am completely on my own, I am without a doubt in good hands.
I have also come to terms with the guilty feeling that I “left” loved ones. This past holiday season I was so fortunate to meet up with several of my relatives in the Caribbean. I even got to spend one-on-one time with a cousin I had not seen in fifteen years. Opportunities like that do not come by often, and as an expat, I have learned to savor them thoroughly. For over six months (since that hairdresser’s comment) I had been walking around with that knot of guilt in my stomach. During our Caribbean family vacation, where the water was blue, the piña coladas frozen, and my skin four shades darker, I let it go.
I am a nomad and a globetrotter. I am accepting myself this way–at last!–because I am happy.
It is not that I want to leave, but that I want to go. It isn’t that I feel detached from my family, but rather that I feel connected to everything. This is not me filling an empty void in my heart; this is me overflowing with love for the world. While living in Mexico, I have come to accept the wonder and self-empowerment that comes from knowing I belong in many places around the globe and that the love I give and receive at home can be re-created everywhere.
As for my mom, family, and friends… I make every effort possible to stay in touch. When we see each other, that short time can be magical, special, memorable, and filled with all the love I could not show while we are apart. The time may be limited, but I hope it is invaluable and unforgettable.
My expat life is not better or worse than anyone’s. It is simply the way I love living. In that, I am whole and complete – not just with myself, but with my family, with my closest friends, and with all strangers out there. I don’t want to sacrifice my time or anyone’s. I don’t want a fixed place to call home. I want to distribute my time everywhere around the world. Because we can be generous with everything, I’m going to be generous with time.
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Photo: Vanessa Lynn Uzcategui